My Theology

ExPluribusUnum, or "one from many", is the Shortest Way to Describe My Theology.

I believe that we are all mere human beings trying to make sense of our existence; so we should keep that in mind when we interact with one another. We are one people, composed of many persons. "God" is found in the love we share. The only way to get to that holy place is to practice more love!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Palm Sunday in the ELCA

Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, I attended a service at a Lutheran Church for the baptism of my partner's and my newest nephew. Over the years that I have been with my partner I have changed a lot, and my feelings about Christianity have evolved and broadened. Still, the only times I set foot in Christian churches for a service over the past decade have been for weddings, funerals, and for the past eight Christmas Eves with my partner's family at their Lutheran Church. Every year, my internal dialog leading into Christmas revolves around whether or not to take communion. So far, my resolve has been not to participate, both because I respect the rite for what it means to the community in which I am a guest, and also because I respect that the rite in that format doesn't mean much to me. After all this time, I figure that folks in the congregation have grown accustomed to my stepping aside and observing while they line up rather than joining them up at the altar. Going to a service, in the daylight, at the start of the holiest week in the Christian liturgical year...that was going to be something different altogether!

Except, that it wasn't. Despite my admittedly small anxiety over the question of communion, I wondered what my reaction would be to doctrine around the last few days of Jesus' life and his pending resurrection. I wondered what my reaction would be to the sacrament of baptism, understood in most Christian communities as an initiation into the Christian fold. Would I bristle at the exclusivity of it all? Would I find the tone of the service arrogant and condescending? Would I hold my breath and pray for it to be over so we could take pictures and go back to the farm for lunch with family?

No. None of that happened. In fact, I was actually very pleased with the whole experience. The people were warm and welcoming, as they always have been. The hymn tunes, for the most part, were familiar and comforting. The scripture reading from Isaiah spoke to me, and the gospel reading was touching, if somber. The baby was ever so peaceful and neither cried nor woke during the baptism service. Included in the time for intercessory prayer were words of inclusion which, while affirming the primacy of Christ for the congregation at hand, yet still honored and respected people of differing belief! I was amazed and pleased. And, though I'm not sure of the exact reason (perhaps because of the quiet tenor of anticipation during Holy Week), there was no communion!

As they say in the United Church of Christ, God is still speaking! And I am indeed pleased with strides made of late in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), specifically with regard to attitudes on human sexuality. My assumptions about what Christianity is are biased by my experience of what it has been, and are crumbling in the face of what it is becoming - which is ever-more inclusive and tolerant of diversity, at least in certain corners of the United States.

Here's what I was confronted with on Sunday:
Isaiah 50:4-9(a) {NRSV}
The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty? 
I listened to the reader, and I heard the still, small voice within me say "God has a use for you". I felt like, yeah, maybe one day I will actually go to seminary. I thought of all the bad experiences I had in the past and into the present with those who profess the love of God while inflicting spiritual harm on anyone who is different than they are, and I heard "you are a child of God, do not be ashamed". I heard the foreshadowing of "they know not what they do", and while I began to feel pity for people who claim Christianity yet do not follow Jesus' command to love, I realized that those pitiful people were not the ones with whom I was worshiping. No, these people were a community of people striving together, struggling together, to be the best people that they could be. These people were Christians the way God intends Christians to be. It was a revelatory moment for me, hearing the scripture read in this context. It wasn't until later that I discovered that, at least according to the program insert provided by the ELCA, these words of the prophet Isaiah were seen as predicting the Messiah and were to be read as though Jesus said them. No matter. God was still speaking through Isaiah's words, and I heard what God wanted to say to me, in my heart.

Later, toward the end of the baptism portion of the service, came the intercessory prayers:

Returning to the Lord with all our heart, let us pray for the whole people of God, the earth, and all who cry out for healing.

{A brief silence.}

Form in the church the mind of Christ, that we may empty ourselves for the sake of the world you love. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Open the ears of civil authorities, that they may hear the voices of those facing insult and degradation, and those who cry out for bread and shelter. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Rescue the earth from abuse and pollution, and bring an end to famine, disease, terror, and bloodshed. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Bless the Jewish people as they celebrate Passover, and grant that the religions of the world may grow in mutual understanding and respect. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Draw near to all who feel abandoned, or who face alienation, death, or illness this holy week {prayers inserted here for local community members}. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Teach us to walk the way of the cross, that we may be a community of forgiveness and mercy. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

{Here other intercessions were offered.}

We remember all the martyrs and saints who at death were commended into your merciful hands (especially Oscar Romero). Bring us, with them, to the joy of the resurrection. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Hear us according to your steadfast love, O God, and in your great compassion bring us to resurrection and rebirth in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Can you believe it? I hardly could.

At the end of the service, church members came up to this large group of people, mostly out-of-towners just present for the baby's baptism, and sincerely welcomed us, inviting us back for next week's service! The pessimist in me thought "they are a tiny congregation and it must feel nice to have more people present for services", and this is probably true. But the optimist in me thought "these are people of God, behaving in a way that is pleasing to God."

And we all laughed, and smiled, and rejoiced. It didn't hurt that our nephew (like all our other nieces and nephews) is the cutest most adorable most well-behaved kid on the face of the planet*.

*The bias here is all mine, and I'm not ashamed!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stealing Jesus: to claim, or not to claim, my Christian heritage?

So - working in a synagogue has given me new perspective on the value of scripture, heritage and tradition. Although I briefly thought of myself as an atheist after leaving the United Methodist Church I was raised in, God has never really been far from my heart, and certainly has never been far from my mind - I'm for all intents and purposes obsessed with theological reflection. I once had a conversation with a fellow member in my home Unitarian Universalist congregation, where I must have asked him something along the lines of "why do you stick with Christianity", although I can't remember exactly what either of us said. Even though the words of his answer are lost to my memory, what I understood him to be communicating to me was that he remains a Christian because he has to. Because that's who he is.

At the time, I didn't quite get what he meant. But learning about the yearly cycle of festivals and observances, of weekly Torah readings and study, and all the trappings of what it means to be a Jew - all of that is leading me to realize that I, too, cannot escape who I am. As a Unitarian Universalist, it is incumbent upon me to learn from any and every faith tradition that provides meaning for me and to apply what I've learned to my life. But no amount of respect and study of the Mahabharata will make me a Hindu. No amount of study of the Tripitaka will make me a Buddhist. Although I appreciate Judaism and learned more about it in the past six months than I realized I didn't know...I will never be a Jew.

I have come to the realization - or decision - that I can study and appreciate any of these faiths and more, but that I cannot adopt them as my own. I can learn from them, but I am unable to fully embrace them. The Judeo-Christian Bible and its stories, its legacies, are ingrained in me by way of my upbringing in a way that is more immediate and comprehensible to me than any other tradition has a hope of becoming, by the mere fact that I was raised with it. It's a part of me. And whether I agree or disagree with Christianity as it has become in our society, I have to admit that, as an American with my background, it's still the first lens through which I understand the universe.

So why not claim my heritage, make it my own, and run with it? Because I still have baggage. I cannot, I will not, call myself a Christian unless and until I can deal with the baggage that comes along with that for me. However, I can stop fighting it. I believe I already have stopped fighting it; but saying it out loud should make it easier to let go. Rev. Rolenz' sermon helped me to see that I don't have to accept other people's understanding of Jesus' message - which has been morphed over the millenia into the myriad churches we have today. I am also reading Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, which, after reading his book The God We Never Knew, is allowing me to feel more comfortable with my history, and by extension with my future. Can I be a Jesusite without Christianity? Can I call myself a Christian without all the Jesus stuff? Can I, like so many of my Jewish friends, just put secular in front of Christian and be happy with that, ignoring whatever (temporary?) cognitive dissonance it creates in my mind? Hm...

So yeah - that's a lot of babbling. And I'm not sure it came out coherently. Watch the sermon, maybe that will help.

For now, I will continue to reflect on harmonious ways to claim my inherited Christian tradition, melded with my pagan a.k.a. nature-based spirituality. I'm blessed to have a home in Unitarian Universalism, my chosen faith, that provides me the space to do so.

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